Beyond the Postcard – Stumbling Upon the Best Lunch in Cancun, Mexico

The best part about traveling are the unexpected moments. Those “gems” that you stumble across that no one told you about, probably because they don’t know about them either. They provide a truly unique experience that can’t be deliberately replicated, they just happen.  A perfect example of this happened a few months ago while we were on vacation in Mexico; we did not expect to find the best lunch in Cancun, but we did.  And it became the highlight of our visit to Cancun.

Meet Raphael - Best Lunch in Cancun

Cancun – a Convenient Tourist Mecca!

Cancun wasn’t our ultimate Mexico destination, but we flew into the city because of the convenience and low price for tickets.  We knew it was very touristy and a bit crowded, but we looked forward to relaxing for a couple days on the white sandy beaches and enjoying the crystal blue water.   Even though we splurged to stay at a very nice all-inclusive resort, we found that we didn’t particularly like Cancun.

It lacked charm and authenticity, really anything to do with the culture of Mexico!  In fact, most of the tourists stay out in the “hotel zone” – a beautiful stretch of beach, but completely isolated.  Sprinkled among the seemingly endless number of resorts are a few tacky souvenir shops and chain restaurants, the same kind of restaurants that you would see in the States.  And to be honest, I don’t consider the Cheesecake Factory or PF Chang’s to be a culinary or cultural experience.

Stumbling Lunch - Pin

Plans Don’t Always Go Your Way – Make the Most of It!

Our plans for the second day in Cancun didn’t pan out due to some stormy weather in the area.  Even though we were bummed about not being able to go snorkeling, we wanted to make the most of our unexpected free-day in Cancun. Luckily, we had a rented a car in Cancun.  We decided to venture outside the tourist area to get to know the real Cancun.  So we headed into the center of town for a bit of shopping at some markets.

A view from the outside of the Mercado 28 in Cancun, Mexico. Cancun shopping, best lunch in cancun
A view from the outside of the Mercado 28 in Cancun, Mexico

While Looking for Our Car, We Find Food (of course)!

When we were finished wandering the market and haggling for a couple souvenirs in the popular Mercado 28, we decided to head back to the car.  Unfortunately, the market is set up like a maze…and we were a bit lost!  We decided to go to the outer edge of the market, and just walk around the outside until we found our car.

As we continued to walk the perimeter we suddenly were overcome with a delicious smell from a small white structure just beyond the market stalls.  This boxy structure had two walls that hinged open upward to create windows.  It also had a small bar area with a couple stools for sitting.  We walked over to check it out, and we were greeted by the warm, smiling face of Raphael.

Raphael's set up outside Mercado 28 in Cancun, Mexico. best lunch in cancun
Raphael’s set up outside Mercado 28 in Cancun, Mexico

Meet Raphael – Making the Best Lunch in Cancun!

“Hola, buenos dias!” he cheerfully said to us.  We returned the greeting in Spanish, but he could tell we spoke English, so he began talking to us in English — very good English.  We looked around at this small, makeshift restaurant.  There was barely room for Raphael and one other worker inside the building.

Intrigued by the wonderful aromas, we asked Raphael what smelled so good.  He responded “enmoladas de pollo.” Similar to enchiladas, it was chicken wrapped in corn tortillas, covered in a mole sauce (chocolaty goodness with spices) and a side of rice and black beans. It was the only meal on the menu today.  Raphael told us that each day he does something different.

Raphael's Kitchen - You can see the orange sign with today's special on it (the only menu item)!
Raphael’s Kitchen – You can see the orange sign with today’s special on it (the only menu item)!

Immediately our stomaches started screaming with hunger for that dish, so we ordered one to split and took a seat behind the stove so we could look over and continue to chat with our new friend.  His English was quite good, and he said that he had spent many years in California, and that he even went to college there.  But most of his family was here in Cancun, so he eventually returned to be near them as they grow older.

Fast-Food, Mexico Style!

As we sat there talking with Raphael, we noticed that he was knocking out meal after meal.  But we were the only customers sitting at the window!  So who was he cooking all this food for?  We noticed that his assistant would put the food into takeout containers, tie it in a bag, and send out with a runner / delivery person.  There were multiple runners, and we noticed them coming to and from the building every few minutes.

Raphael boxing up to-go orders while his runners add up the totals for delivery and collect payment.
Raphael boxing up to-go orders while his runners add up the totals for delivery and collect payment.

We asked Raphael about who all the food was for, and he said it was for his primary customers inside the market.  The whole reason his shop is set up here, is because of the workers inside the Mercado 28, this is their daily lunch.  The runners walk around inside the market telling workers of the daily specials and taking orders.  Then they run outside to put in the order and deliver it back to the workers inside.  Josh and I looked at each other and smiled, “well you can’t get a more local lunch than that” Josh said with a smile.

Raphael is hard at work on our lunch, and we get a front row seat! best lunch in cancun
Raphael is hard at work on our lunch, and we get a front row seat!

Other Tourists Just Walked By!

With no real signage on the outside of this small structure, other tourists didn’t notice Raphael’s shop.  We saw a number of them stop and look our way when they got a whiff of the wonderfully smelling lunch, but none of them came over.  They all looked a bit confused about whether or not it was a real restaurant, then they headed over to the higher priced tourist restaurants (with hosts that would shove menus in their faces as they walked by). 

We can’t attest to the food at those higher priced restaurants, but surely they were overpriced compared to Raphael’s meal, and we are certain the conversation wasn’t as good either.

View into the kitchen from our seats - lunch was cooked right in front of us. best lunch in cancun
View into the kitchen from our seats – lunch was cooked right in front of us.

Seriously, it was the BEST Lunch in Cancun!

Josh and I devoured our lunch, and it was AMAZING!  Honestly, the best lunch in Cancun — probably the best meal we had period in Cancun!  For lunch as well as a huge bottle of water, it only cost us an equivalent of a couple US dollars!  Making this not only the best lunch in Cancun, but probably one of the cheapest!  Given the hugely inflated prices in the tourist zones of Cancun (and much lower quality of food), this is definitely the way to go!

lunch in cancun, enmoladas de pollo, cancun off the beaten path
And that’s lunch – wow!  Absolutely incredible!

Don’t Be Afraid to Try Something Different

Our hearts warmed getting to know Raphael and seeing real life happen in Mexico.  Suddenly we didn’t feel so much like tourists walking around a market getting hounded by the shopkeepers.  We felt like we were a part of the culture and friends with the people.  

So next time you travel, don’t get caught up following the crowds.  And don’t be nervous to explore the lesser known sights or dining establishments, because this may be where you have the best experience.  It’s important to step out of your comfort zone when you travel.  That’s what makes it so exciting, but also the most rewarding.

Check Out Our Mexico Travel Guide!

Scroll to Top